Explain to Social Security How Your Disability Affects Your Daily Activities

Your difficulties with daily personal activities are very helpful to Social Security’s disability determination.

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When you apply for Social Security disability, in addition to telling Social Security what your prior job activities were and why you can't do them anymore, Social Security will want to know how you handle your "activities of daily living" (ADLs).

You may be asked about your activities of daily living as part of the adult disability report, the adult function report, or the continuing disability review report. On these forms, take advantage of the opportunity to describe to Social Security in your own words the difficulties you have in performing ADLs. Tell Social Security each activity that is limited, to what degree that activity is limited, and how the limitation is caused by your medical condition. Also be sure to mention your difficulties with daily activities to your doctor, so that they become part of your medical record and your claims of difficulty with ADLs can be corroborated by your medical record.

Here are some specific suggestions for several areas of ADLs that Social Security wants to know about.

Personal Mobility

Write down the specific things you have difficulty doing —such as walking, getting out of a chair, or moving about in some other way. Next, describe the symptom or problem that specifically limits you—such as weakness or paralysis, numbness, pain, poor balance, dizziness, or lack of coordination. Finally, describe the degree of severity of your symptoms— such as inability to stand for more than 30 minutes because of back pain, inability to walk more than two blocks due to leg pain, or shortness of breath.

Personal Needs and Grooming

Describe any difficulties you have in taking care of hygiene, dressing, and taking care of your hair. Don't underestimate the importance of these everyday activities that many people take for granted. For example, if you have had a stroke, you may be unable to button your shirt with one hand. Inability to button a shirt or pick up coins tells Social Security that you have difficulty with fine movements of your fingers, movements that are critical in some kinds of work.

A claimant with a profound mental disorder, such as severe dementia like Alzheimer's disease, might require help with even basic personal needs such as toileting. Be sure to note if a caregiver provides help. And if you are completing the form for a recipient with a mental disorder, ask the caregiver for insight into what the recipient can and cannot do.

Household Maintenance

Social Security is not so much interested in whether you actually do things around the house—the SSA wants to know if you can do these things. For example, the fact that you don't cook is not an argument that you cannot cook. It is more significant that you could previously cook but no longer are able to because you can't stand for very long and your kitchen isn't wheelchair accessible, you can't use your fingers, or you are inattentive and burn food, or your anxieties keep you from going out to shop.

With a physical disorder, you might have difficulty standing or using your hands to perform routine household activities—for instance, the pain in your hands is so severe you cannot turn a wrench or hold a paintbrush, or your loss of coordination means you can't hit a nail to do repairs around the house. Maybe you can't vacuum because of shortness of breath. Whatever the limitation, be specific and give the reason for the limitation. For example, you might write, "I can rake leaves slowly for 30 minutes before I get so exhausted I have to rest for the same length of time."

Recreational Activities and Hobbies

Information on your hobbies helps the SSA learn important things about your physical and mental abilities. For example, hunting requires a certain amount of physical stamina, but the amount depends on the type of hunting you do. There is a big difference between a hunter who can hunt only by riding down a dirt road on a four-wheeler looking for a deer and one who can walk miles through the woods for hours.

Similarly, the ability to play musical instruments implies an ability to use the fingers in a coordinated way, especially regarding fine movements. Reading newspapers shows the ability to read small print and to concentrate. The lack of interest in various recreational activities can be a sign of depression and withdrawal.

Social Contacts

Social Security is looking at your ability to interact with other people. Social skills are important in determining the type of work you can do, especially in evaluating the severity of a mental disorder. That you don't engage in any of these activities does not necessarily mean you can't. What is particularly revealing to Social Security is a change in which social activities previously of interest to you are no longer, and what symptoms you have that prevent your socialization. For example, Social Security will want to know if you previously enjoyed going to church but no longer do because of depression, paranoia, or fear of leaving home—but Social Security does not care that you've never been interested in going to church.

Social contacts need not be limited solely because of mental disorders. For example, advanced lung disease, muscle weakness, or pain can limit your desire and ability to interact socially.

Other Limitations on Your Activities

Describe any other problems with ADLs not previously discussed, such as epilepsy that restricts your driving a car, difficulties with balance that prevent you from riding a motorcycle, fear or confusion that prevent you from traveling alone on a bus or subway, or memory problems that keep you from going out alone without getting lost.

This article was excerpted from Nolo's Guide to Social Security Disability, by David Morton, M.D. (Nolo).

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